Worries from an automation-skeptic

Automation makes sense in a few sub-contexts, but should not be taken to the extreme.

I’ve been an automation skeptic as long as I’ve been working in IT, an industry that’s all about automation. That doesn’t make sense on a superficial level, but I feel like I’ve been doing useful work. The fact that you can automate something, doesn’t mean you should.

When there’s an enormous bias towards “automating all the things”, I think it’s good to have a few people around that ask critical questions. I have been trying to fill that role, although it has been difficult. At best, I made a couple of people think and reflect, but I never could truly put a stop to automation ideas that didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

white robot near brown wall

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash. I loved this cute robot when I visited Japan and I was completely baffled by its existence at the same time.

It seems to me that the pendulum currently swings too far to the automation side: humans and human interaction are being automated away more and more.

I went to my local supermarket yesterday and I saw that only self-checkout registers were available. What about people who don’t want to use those? What about people who are unable to use them, like some elderly? What if I’m lonely, and I like the small chitchat with the cashier? (I’m aware of the *old man yells at cloud* vibes here, that’s the risk of being a skeptic: coming across as a whiny little shit.)

Don’t get me wrong, I personally prefer the self-checkout in this exact use-case, but the lack of choice bothers me. Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems to me that it’s primarily a cost-cutting measure by the supermarket to get rid of the cashiers. It fills me with a bit of schadenfreude to read in the news that theft is up because of the self-checkout machines. No shit.

Where “automating all the things” becomes truly problematic is: traffic.

Let’s talk about autonomous vehicles.

The fact that people think automating cars to drive by themselves is a good idea baffles me. We have already solved autonomous vehicles: it’s called the motherfucking train. Or metro. These vehicles are sometimes automated (the Copenhagen metro is driverless), and it could work there because it’s mostly a closed system. The amount of times a train interacts with unpredictable humans is capped, but the most obvious one is when it crosses a road. This interaction abides by certain rules. Most of the time, barriers go down to avoid cars from crossing the road. And even this is not without accidents.

But to think that cars could be automated and that it will work fine is actually an insult to everyone who uses the public space that is the road/street/curb.

Traffic is a social construct. It is human-centric in essence.

Maybe a completely car-brained(1) North-American person thinks autonomous vehicles are a good idea, but I invite those people to come to the Netherlands. We have more bicycles than people in this country. Walking and cycling are completely normal ways of transportation, and I fail to see how this would work with automated vehicles in the mix.

Example 1: I’m cycling and about to reach a roundabout (the exact roundabout in the picture below). Cyclists have priority on this roundabout (and can come from both directions!), but a car is approaching near me. What do I do? I purposefully look at the driver of the car to check if they see me. If they don’t see me, and they’re approaching the roundabout too rapidly, I make a split second decision to slow down. I’m not going to throw myself into harms way, even though I have priority here. I fail to see how I would be able to make this decision with a driverless car when I cannot gauge its intention.

Example 2: I’m walking and about to reach a zebra crossing (the crossing in the picture below). The same principle applies here. I try to make eye contact with the driver to check if they are about to give me right of way. Some drivers are assholes and won’t, but you can spot this behavior easily.

The thing is this: humans are the road users, the machines they happen to use are just the tool. Yes, humans are sometimes unpredictable, but if you are a regular road user in whatever capacity (cyclist, pedestrian, car driver) you develop heuristics to deal with this. It is known in my country that cyclists have right of way compared to cars like 90% of the time. They teach you this when you’re taking lessons to get your driver’s license, and this works. Most drivers are considerate of cyclists and pedestrians.

I am sure that North-American engineers, where most of the development for self-driving and driverless vehicles is happening, don’t program this behavior into their autonomous vehicles. The North-American default mode is: “road = for cars”. Their whole mental model cannot comprehend a different system.

Cyclists introduce a level of utter chaos that autonomous vehicles are not equipped to deal with. Take a look at rush hour in the center of Utrecht.


In this example, cyclists are separated from cars. Admittedly, this is pretty normal here. But, there are plenty of times when cyclists and cars share the same road, and it can get pretty crowded. I highly doubt that autonomous vehicles would handle this well. Humans might be “slow” in some aspects, but we are excellent at quickly looking around us to gather context and make split-second decisions.

I’ve driven my car on a road with many cyclists, and I just know that they can behave unexpectedly. I anticipate this by driving carefully and slowly, being very aware of where the cyclists are around me and avoiding hitting them at all costs! Would I like all cyclists to stop their erratic behavior? Yes, sure. But we’re dealing with fellow humans here, we are all behaving like stupid idiots from time to time. So I cut them some slack and have empathy for the other road users. It’s not that hard.

Consider me highly skeptical of automated cars ever working out. We have already solved the problem of safer traffic! It’s called public transport. It’s called good urban design.

Just like Uber reinvented taxi’s, can we please stop reinventing the wheel here? I don’t want to live in a tech-bro dystopia, where it is assumed that everybody owns a car and only wants to drive everywhere.

Cars that take up a lot of space and transport relatively few individuals are not the solution. I don’t care if you make them electric or driverless, this will not solve the problem of making the road safer. Pedestrians and cyclists deserve more space on the road compared to cars. They also deserve to feel safe from cars that weigh a literal ton or more.

Am I an automation skeptic or a whiny little bugger? You tell me.

1 Carbrain – A derogatory term for a condition caused by long term car dependency. Carbrained people are often blissfully not aware of their own car-centrism, but when they are they’ll find ways to justify this to themselves or are openly proud of it. Carbrain is the Stockholm syndrome of car-dependency.

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